Mystery is part of life and part of faith. Not mystery as riddle or puzzle, which suggests someone holding us in ignorance for a while or playing games with us. The other meaning of mystery is realities that are so large, so complex and so high that our limited minds cannot comprehend them. Mystery as ineffability—truths too great to be described in words. (This is one of the ironies of writing—we try to make pathways with words, all the while knowing that if we’re doing it right, we’ll keep coming to that cloudy cliff edge beyond which words cannot go.)
In some kind of school yearbook, my daughter Eva who died three years ago had responded to the question, “What do you see God in?” Her written answer: “Mystery. My favorite Psalm, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him?’ That’s what I see in God, this mysterious mercy for me.”
When we got to the nine-month mark after Eva died, it struck me that this is the length of time we as parents wait as the hidden mystery of development in the womb unfolds before the spectacular moment of birth. But now we were marking nine months of silence and separation. Ingrid and I were married about a decade before Eva was conceived. That made the pregnancy and her arrival a euphoric time in our lives. On the day of her birth I had so much adrenaline and excitement I couldn’t think straight. I inadvertently drove way over the speed limit wherever I went, especially on visits to the hospital. The small, pink, pudgy little creature who had come into this gray world inspired in me more awe than I had ever experienced in life. How could I not be crazy in the head?
There is birth and there is rebirth and there is final birth into the arms of God. All of it a mystery. I don’t mind not understanding how a human being can be formed in the womb by the knitting of God, and I don’t mind not comprehending eternity. Eva always told me she kind of freaked out when thinking about eternity, and I affirmed her honesty. It showed how smart she really was. It is the wisest people whose breath is taken away by the great mysteries of God. It’s okay to feel intimidated by mystery at the same time that it rouses you.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about something I frequently hear from people who have lost their kid. They say, “It is like a part of you dies.” I’m finding that is true. But I used to think that referred to the searing pain of this kind of loss or of missing that kid you used to talk to, eat supper with, discuss the issues of life with. But it is harder than that. It is not just that you feel like a part of you dies.
A part of you has died.
For almost thirty years there had been two human beings on planet earth who were carrying forward the DNA Ingrid and I imparted. Only two. For all the thousands of people I’ve had the privilege of influencing through speaking or pastoring or writing, there really were only two human beings who would carry on our name, our history, our intimate family values. There were two people toward whom I felt a commitment surpassing almost all other commitments, with joy.
And then one was gone.
So the question becomes, what do we do with that kind of existential loss? Can we really heal from our life being severed in that way? Does life suddenly become half as valuable or purposeful? I admit that I could easily feel that way. We feel tempted to shift into neutral and coast to the end of our own life. When a younger loved one does their dying, we suddenly feel like our own dying has been shoved higher on our life’s agenda. The feeling isn’t really morbid. There is a simple logic to it. Our kid went first, and now we realize how dying is part of the inexorable agenda of living.
But it is not right that dying should suppress living. I know that if Eva were here, it would disappoint her to know that we became apathetic or despondent about life. I know it is possible to bear the deep wound of her loss but keep on walking. When someone loses a member of their immediate family, they have lost someone extremely important, but they have not lost everyone.
All of us need to realize that—married or single, with kids, without kids. Adopted, foster, biological. They say blood is thicker than water. But we all need more moms than our biological mom, more dads than our biological dad, more brothers, more sisters, more friends. Both are true: we must be solidly committed to our families, but our commitments must extend far beyond our families. When our biological family shrinks, it makes us wonder if we have a wider family.
If we can accept mystery, we can find comfort that is larger than our rational assurances. When we face great loss, we need that. We need to give up the need to fully understand. We need the liberty that comes from accepting mystery. If the only way we feel safe is with what we can comprehend, then we will never feel as safe as we might. Mystery moors us to realities that exceed our comprehension. Looking to and respecting the mystery of God is not like standing on a cloud but on bedrock.
How a nineteen-year-old could get that is beyond me. Perhaps a supernatural gift, years before hard times set in.
The book of Job in the Old Testament is hard to read. The story of a man for whom the worst is worse than for anyone I have known, including the loss of all his children, his health, his reputation. The story confronts us with all the great questions of suffering and loss. We read along in the book, looking for the answers to those questions. We chafe at the insulting answers Job’s friends offer him. God enters the story at the end and offers to Job not answers but himself.
Is that adequate? Well, we can think of it this way: When we face great loss, the worst of the worse, will answers to our questions make us feel better? They will not. Answers will not fill the void. They do not replace the person. The hole in our life is still there. So God gives Job, and us, not an answer to pain but himself.
Job clung to God. And he survived. We can, too.